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Robert Fulton

Fulton, Robert, was born in Little Britain, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1765. At a suitable age he was apprenticed to a jeweler in Lancaster, where he accidentally caught a taste for painting-in the cultivation and practice of which he was subsequently quite successful. His passion for the art induced him to relinquish his trade and make a voyage to London, where he was cordially received by Benjamin West, then President of the Royal Academy, and with whom he maintained a constant friendship till death separated them. In painting, Fulton's success did not equal his expectations; and he therefore gradually withdrew his attention from it, and devoted it to the Mechanic Arts. As early as 1793 we find that he had conceived the project of propelling vessels by the power of steam; as he addressed a series of letters at that time to Earl Stanhope, on that subject, and on the more general one of Internal Improvement; these letters were favorably received and duly acknowledged by Stanhope.

During his residence in England the British Government granted him patents for many useful inventions in the mechanic arts. he then crossed over to France and spent several years at Paris, where he devoted himself to the study of several of the modern languages, to philosophy, and the higher branches of mathematics. While in Paris he lived on terms of great intimacy with Joel Barlow, the author of our national poem, the Columbiad; and in 1797, in conjunction with Barlow, he made his first experiment in submarine explosion. In 1806 he returned to this country, and prosecuted at New York his investigations relating to steam navigation and submarine explosion. A full explanation of the latter subject was published in 1810, under the title of "Torpedo War." The country was then on the eve of the war with England; and in 1813 the government placed in his hands an appropriation for the steam ship, "Fulton the First," which was built under his superintendence, and excited universal admiration for its tremendous power as an engine of war.

His first experiment in steam navigation was made on the Hudson River in 1807. With the aid of Robert R. Livingston, he constructed a boat in which he made a trip to Albany. Speaking of this experiment he said; "The morning I left New York, there were not perhaps thirty persons in the city who believed that the boat would move one mile an hour, or be of the least utility. And when we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks. This is the way, you knew, in which ignorant men compliment what they call philosophers and projectors." But the multitude was disappointed; even his most sanguine anticipations were exceeded. His vessel "walked the waters like a thing of life." He made the trip from New York to Albany, in 32 hours, and back again in 30 hours.

The following account of this first steamboat was published at the time, and was undoubtedly a reality, although it was tinged with the marvelous. "Passing up the river she excited the astonishment of the inhabitants on the shore, many of whom had not heard of an engine, much less of a steamboat. She was described by some who indistinctly saw her pass in the night, as a monster moving on the waters, defying the tide, and breathing flames and smoke. Her volumes of fire and smoke by night attracted the attention of the crews of other vessels. Notwithstanding the wind and tide were adverse to its progress, they saw with astonishment that it was rapidly approaching them; and when it came so near that the noise, of the machinery and paddles was heard, the crews in some instances sunk beneath their decks from the terrific sight, and left their vessels to go on shore, while others prostrated themselves and besought Providence to protect them from the approaches of the horrible monster, which was marching on the tide, and lighting its path by the fire it vomited."

Steamboat Clermont

Fulton died on the 24th of February 1815, in the 50th year of his age, and in the midst of his usefulness-but almost in penury. Sixty years only have elapsed since he made his first voyage on the Hudson in the steamboat Clermont, and the same trip is now made in less than one-third of the time in which he made it: and instead of a solitary boat on that river, hundreds of them, like floating palaces, are daily traversing our rivers, lakes, coasts and seas of the eastern world-almost annihilating time and space by the celerity of their movements. The memory of such a man should be cherished by his countrymen-it is the only patrimony which he bequeathed his children.

Source: An authentic history of Lancaster County, in the state of Pennsylvania; Lancaster, Pa.: J.E. Barr, 1869, 813 pgs.

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